On the subject of The South African Sign Language interpreter and the World’s outrage.

Okay, disclaimer. I am not d/Deaf, nor will I consider myself to be, for a long time at least. I know very little signs in ASL and I know even less signs in Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language (TTSL) which is a pity considering my two-year-old interest in the area. I can’t truly be considered an activist in Deaf Culture in T&T, because, quite frankly, the fringes of such a culture is the closest that I can really consider myself to be.

But I do know some bits and pieces of the Culture and societal effects – enough for me to form opinions that will soon evolve to more informed ones, and continuing that cycle. I must first and foremost personally thank my ex-thesis-supervisor Ben for that. *thumbs-ups awkwardly* (Note to Ben, If I’m wrong about anything in this post, please correct me. I’m aware that I’ll basically be lacking in some information somewhere)

Anyway! back to the purpose for this post.

This whole thing about Mr. Jantjie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial  service has got the world in a tizzy. Myself included. And while reading up on blogs and articles that addressed the issue,I’m becoming more and more upset at the whole deal. Native signers of SASL themselves, including, as I understand it, Members of Parliament, have pointed it out. And it’s not just them, signers across the globe have seem it and are just as lost as signers of SASL.

This is prolly one of the few times when my Linguistics rants will come in handy. So I’ll try my best.

Phonologically speaking, there are similarities and differences in signed and spoken languages. Duh. They’re all classified as languages, so while the differences are obvious, the acknowledgement of the possibilities of similarities (known or unknown) In my Humble Opinion (heh) is pretty easy to come by. I mean-*unsaid explanation that all Trini’s expect their audience to infer*!

Lemme explain a bit. Spoken languages have Features -Voice, Place of Articulation, Manner of Articulation, and Airflow. Basically, every sound in a given spoken language (spl) will be comprised of all these in one way or another. /p/ is Voiceless, Bilabial (formed at the lips), Plosive (popping and quick) and done with an egressive Airflow (out the lungs, through the mouth),  /b/ is the same, but Voiced, and so on and so on. VPMA easy.

Signed languages (sl) also have features. But obviously, they will be different, expressed manually – by the hands. Handshape, Palm Orientation, Location, Movement, Non manual markers like facial expressions. For now I’ll leave off the Non manual markers, but so you know they distinguish lexical elements of a given sl. La. So something like TTSL’s sign for “Die” would be


 Handshape – 5; Palm Orientation – upturned; Location – in front of body; Movement – side to side. No Non manual markers to be shown here.

There are Non manual markers (NMM), however, in Questions, whether they be yes/no, or Wh- questions – Who, what, when, where, why, how. This this true in ASL (American Sign), and I expect, in TTSL if I remember my reading *sweats nervously* (not a signer of TTSL, native or learned). So my (not so scientific) assumption is that these would be present in SASL too. Which is confirmed by some of the articles I’ve read about the phonological structures of (any) signed language.

Then came that bizarre as hell article about Jantjie being Schizophrenia. Um… I was so lost for words, but I did sense that that was fishy. Turns out I was sort of right for being suspicious. I remember in a class with Ben, he explained that native signers of any given sl can be affected by Tourette’s Syndrome, randomly inserting vulgarities and the like into their signing. And they do so by Signing them. So keeping this in mind, I did wonder. But the lovely linguists at my – our – well, it’s theirs really – page, did the research that I wasn’t home to do. Turns out, that, yes, native signers are affected by Schizophrenia, just as native speakers (the hearing) are, but in a slightly different way. This quote basically summed up the results of the research done. “Congenitally, profoundly deaf people never ‘heard’ voices but perceived subvisual percepts of sign language articulations or the lip movements of seen speech” Which is good, I’d like to know that, if only for my knowledge. But something else seems to be missing/misleading. As far as I know, sl interpretors tend to be not deaf, i.e. able to hear. Unless like in the case of some, Like Ed Sheeran’s You need me video, where a Deaf person can interpret once the document to be interpreted at the time is reviewed and discussed beforehand.

Another article also explains Schizophrenia in signers, but talked about it in relation to Mr. Jantjie’s performance. Here’s an excerpt from the article concerning the effects of Schizophrenia on Language

“There were many features of Mr Jantjie’s signing that do not chime with the typical presentation of disordered signing caused by a psychotic episode.

“Bizarre fluidity of thought or jumbled signs are comparatively rare even among signers with schizophrenia. This typically presents as larger, more expansive, use of facial expression and signing space, and signing in a very fast and pressured way. The content of such signing is bizarre but retains aspects of sign language structure such as facially expressed grammatical markers.

“By contrast, Mr Jantjie signed without facial expression and in a regimented and contained way.

“Bizarre jumbling of words or signs is known as word salad and this does not come on suddenly, or switch on and off in a signer having a psychotic episode.

“It would also affect his spoken language and would occur alongside significant cognitive dysfunction. Others around him would have immediately noticed that he was not making sense in any language.

So. Yeah. I dunno. It just seems like it’s a rather poor excuse. It’s been proven, according to these articles.

Sooooo…. my conclusions: Jantjie should have NOT done this. Like, bleh, it’s so ….. what’s the word? Unfair, for one. His poor signing skills have been publicized worldwide. No one understands him, and everyone, even- especially -signers of other languages see the flaws in it.

(I suddenly recall the drama with the New Jersey signer that “made a big deal” because of her use of NMM, and am smiling because of the drastic difference here. IT’S FREAKIN’ POLAR OPPOSITES!)

The Deaf of HIS OWN COUNTRY are reminded once again that their community is often pushed to the side. The people who had to use his services are possible victims of his poor signing.

Unfortunately, this is something that is so widely seen. Even in T&T, the demand for interpretors way surpasses the supply, and the d/Deaf here have to make do. And while some are dedicated – I’ve seen some in action, they Do try – sometimes, there are problems with the interpretation, and the d/Deaf often can’t really express them properly, because of a weak grasp of English, which I suppose is natural *sweating anxiously* since it’s not their native language – TTSL, or ASL, or possibly some early form of British sign in Tobago, I dunno – tends to be. Or, maybe nothing at all, but that’s another rant for another time. And I feel I’ll eventually say something about that.

It’s something to say, that the d/Deaf in T&T aren’t involved usually in assessing possible candidates for interpretation, which probably accounts for these problems in communication.

And if that’s the case here, what about elsewhere in the world? To bring back the topic to South Africa and this whole debacle, what about there? What really passes for helpful service in the d/Deaf communities there? Are all the interpretors like that? Can the Deaf really say what the problem is? More importantly, since the whole thing is so blown up, is there anything in the works to correct it, both short term and long term? Will anything continue to happen once media attention finally dies down? Internationally, will this be taken as an example of failure to consider the rights of minority groups such as this one?

There are so many things…..

I dunno, this is just a rant that’s been building for a while. This is what I know.

If anyone –  linguists, psychologists, psychiatrists, neuro….scientists, whoever, can add to/correct information here, I’d be glad.







A Melting Pot of Signs A Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language. Port-of-Spain: Ministry of the People and Social Development, n.d. Print


And then this happens! Here at home, in Trinidad and Tobago! And I went to that school on that campus (St. Augustine)! And I did that area of study (Linguistics)! And I’m sort of aware of these things! And it’s all like 15 mins away from my location! I’m happy, and excited and and and sort of DERP! about it! *falls into unintelligible sounds of excitement*

So, for all of those who can get lost in my inability to properly form a sentence about anything of any level of importance here’s and excerpt from that last linked article, which refers to what I’m talking about.

The fact that there are serious problems with sign language interpreting in South Africa, in Trinidad and Tobago, and all over the world shouldn’t take away from the skill, dedication and commitment of the many interpreters who frequently work for little or no financial reward, and play a crucial role in making this a more inclusive, fairer society. Things are changing. Yesterday, as the news story was breaking, (RFIMH: here’s what I got excited for) a Deaf student at the University of the West Indies was taking the final exam for a Linguistics course with support from a sign language interpreter, the first time this has ever happened in T&T. Next year, the University will offer a Diploma in Caribbean Sign Language Interpreting, providing training to interpreters and would-be interpreters.* More people than ever before are taking ASL and TTSL classes, and in Jamaica, it was recently announced that a Sign Language Interpreting Programme will be piloted in the Senate in January. As people around the world discuss the fake interpreter, as they hear for the first time about Deaf South African Member of Parliament Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, about the differences between using a sign language and just waving your hands around, about what sign language interpreters actually do, and about how Deaf people feel about their languages and about this kind of slight, there is hope that the legacy of this bizarre incident may just be a huge leap forward. There’s certainly still a long walk ahead.

So yerp, here properly ends my rant. Enjoy (?)


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